Memphis. My husband trained there last week and I tagged along, as I love to do, to learn a new city.
I’m not sure what I expected from Memphis. I try to arrive at each destination without plans or preconceptions. But the human mind insists on attaching ideas to things. I think I was expecting to arrive east of Savannah: a big city but with Southern charm. Whatever my preconceived notions were, they were wrong.
My travel experiences are always influenced by my mental state or current events. This trip was different in that my experience of Memphis caused me to see current events in a new light. We arrived in Memphis on July 5th. My first impressions of Memphis:
- Memphis is not pretty. I mean, it is beautiful, but in an austere, no-frills way. In the way where no one decorated or planted flowers or preserved buildings. Because Memphis is poor. The fact that Memphis is poor greeted me as I stepped off the plane and shook hands with me every step of my trip. I doubt the guidebooks trumpet this aspect to attract tourists…but I’m still surprised at how oblivious I was to just how economically disadvantaged downtown Memphis is.
- Memphis is broken. Once I got acclimated to the new sights, sounds and smells it became clear that the Southern sights I had unconsciously expected to see were there after all. They were just crumbling and decaying. Windows covered with old boards, entrances blocked off with chain-link fences (after a few days there we began to quip that Chain-Link must be the city tree because it grew everywhere). When we were in Savannah we wandered the city for days, seeing what treasure each new street brought us. We immediately set off to do the same in Memphis. We’d see a church, prance off to check it out only to be brought up short by more chain-link fence and sights of rotting boards in broken windows. There are signs that Memphis tried to revitalize and failed thus far. Because revitalization takes money. See above.
- Memphis is a ghost town. At least where we were, when we were there. At any given time there were few cars or pedestrians out. We jaywalked freely because streets were empty. I’d walk into stores and restaurants and find myself the only customer there. Even Beale Street, world renowned and much touted, was quiet. Maybe it was just hot and that kept people in? Maybe July is the off season? It’s hard to tell when you’re only in a city for four days. This ghost town aspect went beyond people in the street, though. You’d walk down Main street to find every other storefront boarded up and abandoned and then enter the basement of a shopping center to find a priceless collection of art in a museum. Or walk up a stinky alley to find the best food I’ve ever eaten. Memphis has good things, but they’re hidden in unassuming places.
- The economic and racial divide in our country is obvious in Memphis. We stayed at the Peabody Hotel, known for its opulence and wealth. (As an aside, it’s opulent in the way of old-fashioned hotels, not in the way of modern hotels. As in, the rooms were small and the amenities few but the decor was glorious). Inside, everything was beautiful and the people were mostly white. You need only to step outside of its air-conditioned excess to find evidence of poverty and racial segregation. Downtown Memphis is predominately poor and black. Signs of poverty are everywhere – and always represented by black faces. Remember how I mentioned above that Memphis is broken? There has been some revitalization. There’s a beautiful riverfront park from Beale St West, lined with new apartments and condos all running in the million dollar range. It was jarring to walk two blocks and go from broken down, poor, black and struggling to beautiful park and million dollar homes – and understand that this is somehow supposed to be a solution.
- Memphis was hot. When we were there temps were in the upper 90’s with dew points in the 70’s, leading to a heat index of 105 (I’m a Colorado girl. I’m just kidding that I know what any of those terms mean). I’ve never felt heat like it! Everywhere we went was air conditioned to the point where I felt chilly but when a door opened it felt like a steam room had leaked in. It was hot through my shoes and hot surrounding me in a hug wherever we walked outside. When we went to Florida I sweated in embarrassing trails and patches and puddles. I didn’t feel that sweaty in Memphis. Part of it was that there was a near-constant breeze which, with the humidity (I guess? I don’t understand humidity) felt almost chilly on my skin. I think I need more time to understand this Memphis heat but I can tell you I liked it. I know, I’m a freak. I love being hot.
I feel like my trip to Memphis had two parts. Both were awesome but disparate:
In one part I ate food that seriously, no exaggeration, changed my life. Meal after meal was scrumptious. Memphis has ruined me for regular food.
While we were there we toured Graceland. I went along because it’s a cultural icon, but not one I particularly cared about. I thoroughly enjoyed Graceland. It was something else (people keep asking me to elaborate on that statement. I’m sorry, I can’t. I was just something else). Also, having been born in October 1977, Elvis for me was always this creepy fat old guy I never liked. After touring Graceland I now get it. Elvis was HOT. Oh my god, how did I miss out on Elvis my whole life?! I’m not sure I would have even married if I’d known about Elvis (just kidding. Kind of). And, in case you were wondering, I subscribe to the head injury theory of Elvis’s death. It’s also the only explanation of how Hot Elvis became Creepy Elvis.
The other part was harder. It started the day we arrived with the shooting of Alton Sterling. I discovered Memphis with the 24/7 news cycle playing footage of Sterling’s shooting in a constant loop in the background. The morning of July 7th I woke up to see the video of Philando Castile dying. These shootings always bother me because I can see that they are so wrong. Some of the people I love best are in law enforcement. It’s always a struggle for me to know that there are good police officers out there and that shootings like these don’t have to happen. Being in Memphis broke me open so when I watched the Philando Castile video it felt more real than any before it.
We walked to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel with the image of Philando Castile in our heads. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It is, in part a museum dedicated to the end of King’s life (ie, not light material). It’s also a thorough accounting of Black history in America. This is not easy stuff. I knew most of the history but I was completely clueless. I’d never heard black history told in the first person. I’d never understood how many people were hurt or killed for simple things like…boycotting. Or for wanting the same things that other American citizens (ME) take for granted. It was intense. Both of us had to take breaks and process before we could take in any more information. We left feeling heavy. If you ever have a chance to go to the National Civil Rights Museum, GO. It’s only $15 to get in and this is a part of history every American needs to see.
We fell into bed that night exhausted from a day of touring museums, eating great food and walking in the heat. My husband obsessively watches 24/7 news channels so I fell asleep to the news that shots had been fired in Dallas. I awoke to the words, “It’s confirmed. Four officers dead. Four officers have died.” Completely vulnerable from my day, I couldn’t shield myself from the horror of a human being dying. I spent the next few hours calming myself down from the panic attack that started before I was even awake.
That just begins to describe the complicated relationship I’ve developed with Memphis. One of the reasons I love travel so much is that it changes me. I learn something new and add a new aspect to myself in every place I get to know. Memphis definitely made it’s mark, and that mark is uncomfortable.
My take homes from Memphis:
- So many of the things I’ve learned to think of as normal things that good people do to prove they’re good (see: recycling and planting flowers) are actually vestiges of privilege. Yes, recycling, for example, is great for the earth. But rather than being a sign of moral superiority it’s a sign that you have enough resources to care. When you’re poor things like recycling are so far up the totem pole of privilege that you can’t even see them. I arrived in Memphis with this affluent white world view and the city knocked perspective into me so fast and so often my head is still spinning. It is flooring to realize what a privileged life I lead.
- This Black Lives Matter stuff we keep seeing? That’s segregation. That’s Civil Rights. I’d always thought about Civil Rights as something that happened in history, before I was born. I thought it was all settled when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and we all saw the light and declared a holiday. I was so wrong. Segregation never ended and we’re watching the consequences playing out before our eyes. Black Lives Matter means that when the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” it means ALL MEN. African Americans are United States Citizens just as much as I am, but they don’t have the same rights I do. You only need to watch videos of black men getting shot by police to see that it’s true. You only have to see what poverty in America looks like to see that it’s true. What’s happening in the United States right now is history. I plan to be on the right side of history.
- Elvis was SEXY.
- I like being hot. And humid. And yes, this bullet sounds really bad after the last one.
So…Memphis was beautiful and wonderful. And hard.
A few sights from Memphis:
Graceland, including me and Elvis and my creeper husband, the crowds (oh! the crowds) and Elvis’s love of mirrors:
Absolutely exquisite carving and the Belz Museum:
The riverfront, featuring tire tracks in the grass, trash, the original cobblestones and the only flowers we saw in Memphis:
Sunset from atop the Peabody (including me, the huz and the ducks):
Memphis from the 8th floor:
Fun restaurants we enjoyed featuring toothpicks in the ceiling at Huey’s Downtown (I shot one up!), Itta Bena, Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous whose ribs changed my life (Peyton Manning agrees) and biscuits and gravy at the Blue Plate:
So Memphis. Chain link fences. The sign says coming soon, but I think it may be a wish rather than a promise:
And the Bass Pro Pyramid, which has a hotel inside. It was cool, but maaaaaybe not worth the 2 mile walk in the heat to get there: